We’re taught almost as soon as we speak our first words to end our sentences with a firm and clear “period” or downward intonation. When we want information, though, we lift our pitch in a definitive “question mark.” These are examples of prosody, the intonation pattern we use in language to give an added boost to our communication. People may not even hear the words you use as clearly as they notice the way in which you speak them. In spoken communication, the melody of language is as important as the content.
But these conventions of downward and upward intonation are being thrown aside increasingly in the common speech of Americans, as an epidemic of “Valley-Girl”-itis sweeps the country. First written about in 1993 by NYU School of Journalism professor James Gorman, the formal term for this trend is HRT speech, standing for “High Rise Terminals.”
It’s hard to replicate this sound with the written word, but if you've ever heard the recurring "Saturday Night Live" skit "The Californians," it will give you an idea of uptalk (in its most extreme form).
In uptalk, you insert one or more question marks into a sentence that’s intended to be a declaration. Your listener knows you’re not asking a question, though, and so isn’t required to provide an answer. When you actually want to pose a question, then, you’re left with something of a dilemma: How can your listener know the difference between a sentence and a question when you’ve already liberally sprinkled question marks throughout your speech?
For some reason, uptalk is reaching epidemic proportions. It's probably more typical in some parts of the country; many believe it originated in California. I’ve noticed it particularly on calls from people in Washington, D.C. (Perhaps living around the uncertainty and angst that characterizes our nation’s capital is invading people’s speech patterns.)
Uptalk seems to be morphing, though, from its original manifestation—as sentences that end in question marks—to sentences that have question marks liberally thrown into them, sometimes after every word. Instead of asserting firmly, “I need to meet with you to discuss the problem we’re having with X,” a speaker might phrase this as, "I need? to meet? with you? to discuss the problem? we’re having with X?” Uptalk is moving from a high rise at the end of the sentence to high rises marking every phrase, or even every word. In another variant, a speaker starts the sentence with normal intonation but then goes into high pitch for the remaining words and phrases, which all sound like a question: "I'd like to go to the store today?" with the highlighted phrase spoken about one note higher than the first two.
I originally thought, in my own observations of uptalk, that it would be more common in women than men. We know that women do tend to add more question marks to their speech, and speak in more tentative terms, reflecting gender differences in non-verbal behaviors. However, men are certainly also prone to the sentence-to-question mutation.
A key reason we use language is to control an interaction. Whether you’re trying to persuade someone to buy something from you, to agree with you, or to do you a favor, your speech is intended to get across a certain point. When your words and your speech pattern don’t agree, though, you run the risk of undercutting your purpose. Your listener can become confused or suspicious, and even wonder if you can be trusted.
It’s also possible that uptalk has jarring effects on our brains. Speakers exposed to questions when there should be sentences feel a bit confused, as indicated by a study of Majorcan Catalans (del Mar Vanrell et al., 2013). McMaster University’s Michel Belyk and Steven Brown (2014) found that different regions of the cortex process affective and linguistic prosody. Affective prosody is what you use to communicate your feelings, as when your voice suggests that you’re unhappy, confused, or angry. Linguistic prosody is how you communicate the different meaning of words (conTENT vs. CONtent). Your brain doesn't know what to do with the conflicting linguistic information conveyed in uptalk.
If you’ve managed to remain immune to uptalk, you’ve likely become annoyed on more than one occasion by having been forced to listen to it. However, if you’ve fallen prey to it, or just want to sound “cool” (the original Valley Girl motivation), your ears have probably tuned it out in yourself and those you interact with. You might even feel that people who don’t use uptalk are rude or overly assertive.
The problem is that you can’t always rely on your listener sharing your speech-pattern preferences. Going to a job interview, you want to look as if you’re in control and are knowledgeable. If you’re speaking with frequent questions to an audience that hasn’t caught the uptalk bug, they’ll think you don’t know what you’re talking about, or are just insecure. Those frequent questions that punctuate your speech will make it seem as if you’re floundering rather than the master of your subject matter.
Is there a cure for the uptalk bug? It’s possible we may just have to wait for the next linguistic epidemic to replace it, but in the meantime you can do your part to beat it. If you think your case is particularly extreme, you could try recording your voice during an ordinary conversation and listen for the tell-tale question marks sprinkled in the middle or end of what are supposed to be sentences. You could also consider asking a non-uptalking friend or family member to correct you when you slip.
Once you realize that you can control the way you speak, you’ll feel better and more confident about being able to control your image in general. Speech trends may come and go, but the basic facts of impression formation won’t change: To look confident, you need to speak confidently. Right?